Is the nuclear triad still useful? How many nuclear warheads does a state need to deter its foes? Or should we move towards a qualitative deterrence instead of a quantitative one?
Transforming the World into a Parking Lot
Currently four nations namely the US, Russia, China and India have the possibility to deliver their nuclear payloads towards what is called the ‘nuclear triad’; through strategic bombers (air delivery), intercontinental ballistic missiles (land delivery), and submarine-launched ballistic missiles (sea delivery).
According to the latest figures of the Stockholm International Peace and Research Institute (SIPRI), the US has stationed 1,930 nuclear warheads that are operational and ready to be launched within minutes. An additional amount of 5,070 is kept on stock. With a total of 7,000, these warheads would be enough to destroy several planets within few hours. With a Russian arsenal of roughly the same size, Washington and Moscow together hold around 90% of the total warheads around the world.
Is the nuclear triad still useful? Intercontinental ballistic missiles (land delivery) pose a series of issues in their implementation: they can be quick to deliver but their positions might already be disclosed to potential enemies, which renders them rather useless. Air delivery via strategic bombers is slow and planes are also easily detectable.
The only really functional missiles in the triad remain the submarine-launched ballistic missiles (called SLBMs). Both American and Russian ballistic missile submarines (abbreviated SSBNs) can stay undetected under water during months. They have the capacity to contain between 16 (for the Russian ‘Borei’ class submarines) and 20 (for the American ‘Ohio’ class submarines) missiles, each containing 6 to 12 warheads (Multiple Independently targetable Reentry Vehicle, (MIRV)), with the power of 100 to 150 Kilotons (kt). As a comparison: The ‘Little Boy’ and the ‘Fat Man’ bombs that hit Hiroshima and Nagasaki in World War II had an explosive power of 15 kt and 21 kt respectively.
Therefore, only one ballistic missile submarine can carry, in theory, around 100 warheads with the potential explosive force of 10,000 kt (which is equivalent of 10,000,000 tons of TNT).
Enough Credible Muscle-Flexing
Through their secret nature it is very probable for submarine-launched ballistic missiles to succeed in hitting a potential target within a certain area. Submarine missiles are therefore enough to maintain a stealthy capability and a serious deterrence and retaliation capacity, with or without a ‘no first use’ policy.
The need of thousands of warheads, clearly, is not necessary: they are costly to maintain and renew, dangerous because of a possible unexpected event (32 nuclear weapon accidents so far) and the ratio of the number of nuclear warheads compared to their impact is minor.
All of nuclear-equipped states recognize that the most important element of deterrence is secrecy. If you don’t know the full military capacity of your enemy, you tend to be more careful. Therefore, to maintain this uncertainty or what Clausewitz called the ‘Fog of War’ submarine-launched ballistic missiles are enough to keep a high level of deterrence since the two other delivery means are not serving this purpose.
Nevertheless, regarding the current global geopolitical context with the high tension created by Russia, the uncertainty regarding Trump’s foreign policy and the Chinese and Indian regional assertions, it is unlikely that a downgrade will happen anytime soon.